It’s often been said that trust is something that you earn — or that you completely destroy in irredeemable ways. So it’s a little bizarre to see President Obama trying to restore German trust in the US (and specifically over NSA surveillance) with a bogus “hey, trust us” line, when his own government has spent the past few years doing everything possible to undermine any residual trust. Yet here he is, in a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, asking for “the benefit of the doubt.”
There are going to still be areas where we’ve got to work through these issues. We have to internally work through some of these issues, because they’re complicated, they’re difficult. If we are trying to track a network that is planning to carry out attacks in New York or Berlin or Paris, and they are communicating primarily in cyberspace, and we have the capacity to stop an attack like that, but that requires us then being able to operate within that cyberspace, how do we make sure that we’re able to do that, carry out those functions, while still meeting our core principles of respecting the privacy of all our people?
And given Germany’s history, I recognize the sensitivities around this issue. What I would ask would be that the German people recognize that the United States has always been on the forefront of trying to promote civil liberties, that we have traditions of due process that we respect, that we have been a consistent partner of yours in the course of the last 70 years, and certainly the last 25 years, in reinforcing the values that we share. And so occasionally I would like the German people to give us the benefit of the doubt, given our history, as opposed to assuming the worst — assuming that we have been consistently your strong partners and that we share a common set of values.
And if we have that fundamental, underlying trust, there are going to be times where there are disagreements, and both sides may make mistakes, and there are going to be irritants like there are between friends, but the underlying foundation for the relationship remains sound.
Yes, I can understand why President Obama would want that, but that doesn’t mean that he deserves it. This is the same president who allowed the surveillance to happen in the first place, who acted surprised when told it covered Angela Merkel, and who has done nothing more than paid lip service to the idea of reforming surveillance. This is the president who could have ended the bulk collection of phone records just by ordering the NSA to not seek a renewal for its authority, but has not done so.
This is the same President who has prosecuted more whistleblowers and journalists under the Espionage Act than all other Presidents combined (and then doubled). And this is the same administration who has fought off nearly every attempt at transparency over these actions.
So, I’m sorry, but it seems rather hilarious to just say “trust us” when no reason has been given for that trust. No effort has been made to show why the US is trustworthy on this matter. Yes, mistakes are made at times, and then it’s quite right to recognize that not everyone is perfect. But to suggest that the US’s surveillance actions over the past decade have all been a result of such slip ups doesn’t hold any water at all. There is a consistent pattern of stretching the boundaries further and further and playing games with definitions in the law and ever increasing the powers of the surveillance state.
President Obama and the US government may have had the benefit of the doubt in the past, but on surveillance, at this point in time, it seems like it’s going to need a hell of a lot more than “hey, we’re the good guys!” to get people to trust them on that again.